I mentioned in a previous blog that I had been accompanying a very beloved family member in the last stage of her life. On May 6th, the moment finally came and she silently slipped into eternity. Since then, we have been mourning her loss, but also celebrating the beautiful love with which she lived her life.
According to her wishes, the last weeks of her life were spent at home. Living close to a dying family member is not easy, but, as painful as it is, I believe that it is a good thing. The suffering forces the family to come together, and just as a physical body exerts all energy to assist an ailing part, the individuals of the family sacrifice time and comfort to be at the side of the sick loved one. Thus, they are brought into the dying process, their love is tested and it is brought to a new level.
Another thing happens when you are close to the dying process of a loved one. Death becomes more of a reality. It is no longer something you hear about or see in movies: it is just down the hall. In my case, I was at her side when she breathed her last. The abruptness and finality of the experience left a deep impression on me: one moment she was there and the next moment she was not. When you are that close to someone’s death, you realize that not much stands between you and the other side. Death is just a few seconds away.
The German philosopher Heidegger described man as a “being-towards-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). Although his philosophy was devoid of Christian hope, this aspect of man is nevertheless true. Whether we realize it or not, our daily existence is conditioned by our upcoming deaths. We live the way we do because we know that our time is limited. We work and seek happiness, and we do so almost frantically, because we only have so much time at our disposal.
I once had a very interesting conversation with a minister’s wife on a train ride from Manhattan to Westchester County. She was telling me about a common question in her husband’s preaching: “What will you do with your dash?” The dash refers to the little line that will appear on your tombstone between the date of your birth and the date of your death. It stands for all of the time that elapsed between your entrance into the world and your departure. It may represent 25 years, 50 or even 100. But it doesn’t matter how much time passed: on your tombstone it is going to be signified by nothing more than a little line.
After our conversation, I got off at my stop in the town of Valhalla and I was struck by something ironic. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great banquet hall of the after-life. My short train ride ended in Valhalla, just as my short life will, God willing, end in Heaven. Really, compared to eternity, earthly life is as quick and fleeting as a daily commute.
But the shortness of life need not be a source of dread. Rather, we should view our time on Earth as an exciting prelude to the real thing. It is a journey towards and a preparation for something so great, so beyond our imagination, that a lifetime is needed to get ready for it. To use a mundane example, our life is like the preview of a movie: it is short and quick, but it offers a glimpse of something even better.
As painful and as dark as life can be, there are still rays of beauty that shine through, tugging at our hearts and reminding us that something greater is just around the corner.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” – John 14: 2 – 3
Time is ticking between now and the moment you enter the Father’s house. What will you do with your dash?